Student Activities to Promote Diversity, Inclusion and Empathy

Blog Series, Learner Experience, Learning, Smart Teachers

By Stephanie Shaw

I make it a priority at the beginning of each year to make sure my students know they are valuable, just as they are. This is important for all students, but I feel it is especially important to my students as I teach inclusion and have a wide variety of ability levels. I want my students to recognize we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but this fact does not decrease our value as people. One of the most important activities I do all year comes during the first week of school. I love it and I do it every year because it does a great job of making the point that we can not judge how smart someone is by a score on a test, because that simply does not tell the whole story.

For this activity I split my students into about six groups, then I give them a box of material and let them know the directions and supplies are all the same. You can see the directions and material list here. They are very simple and can be completed in about a minute. Next, I tell them we are going to have a contest to see which group can finish first. Sounds fair, right? Of course they agree it is does, until I give all but one group some kind a limitation. For example, one group has directions in braille, one group can only use one hand, one group has their directions in Spanish, one group has to work with their eyes closed etc. This creates chaos for a few minutes as the frustration builds. This actually is a lot of fun for me as I walk around and listen to how unfair this is and I, of course, remind them that they agreed it was a fair before we started. I then sincerely apologize for the fact they cannot read Spanish, but that is not my fault. After a minute or two the group with no limitations will finish and I will enthusiastically ask for the class to give this group a round of applause. I will go on to talk about how smart they must be to shine like this and inevitably someone cannot take it any longer and they speak up to state the obvious–some groups had differences that made it the activity harder. Which is exactly the point, we all have limitations that make some things harder for us.

Elementary Students with Teacher Feature Image

At this point I ask a few discussion questions:

  • Why can we not confirm the winning group was not in fact the best?
  • How did you feel during this activity?
  • How might someone feel who has one of these limitations?
  • What can we learn from this activity?

I also make a point to bring up how ridiculous it would be to laugh at the braille group for not having completed the task. In the same way, it is ridiculous to make fun of someone struggling because we do not know what their experience has been or how hard they are working. It is a great time to open up a class discussion to let students share some things they are good at and some things that are hard for them. In my experience, student have really open up with their struggles and even have shared about different disabilities they deal with.

Next, I write the quote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid,” on the board and have the groups discuss how this relates to the activity.

I will always lead back to the point that we come to school in many different sizes, races, and ability levels, but the goal in my classroom is for us to accept each as we are with our strengths and weaknesses and to know we have a lot to learn from each other.

This year, after we had established that we were all different, I followed the lesson up with a free activity from Teachers Pay Teachers. In short I gave each student a sickness, some had a cough, a cut knee, a headache etc. I gave them a minute to act out their injury, then I told them that I was now going to heal them and I proceeded to give them all a bandaid. Now this was completely appropriate for the cut, but their reaction as I “healed” a sore throat with a bandage was fun to watch. We all had a good laugh, but it opened a great discussion. Just like a doctor does not treat all patients the same, a good teacher is not going to treat all students the same. We set the expectation that in our classroom, everyone will not be treated alike and that fair is giving each person what they need in order to be successful.

The goal is for these activities is for the students to value themselves and others a little more. I honestly felt like doing these small things with my students has made a huge impact on the culture of my classroom as I have seen students be more accepting of each other. This lesson  will only take a few minutes, but hopefully the effects will be lasting.

Stephanie Shaw is Teacher of the Year at Mooresville Intermediate School in North Carolina, and a Digital Scholar with the DigiLEARN program. Follow her on Twitter: @stephshaw413.


Laura Roth, Lower School Principal /

This is a fabulous activity to show that different is not on a continuum with strong and weak on opposite ends!. I am going to suggest that someone on our faculty give this a try. A colleague of mine does the bandaid activity, and this is perfect for classes that have a few students with learning differences. Whenever I hear a student ask, “Why does she get extra time on her test? That is not fair, I answer, “I bet she would be willing to trade with you, and give you her learning difference in exchange for extra time on tests. Want to trade?”